Every Story is a Mystery

If I were better at this blogging business, there would be a link here to a *really good blog post* that I recently read and commented on about using screenwriting techniques to liven up novel writing.  But I still suck at blogging, I had stumbled across the post, and now for the life of me I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it.

If it was you, I apologize.  You rock.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  One way screenwriters have an advantage over novelists is that we do not have the luxury of 350 pages to tell our story.  We get maybe 105.  With lots of white space.  We are forced to edit-edit-edit.  We have to figure out how to feed backstory – for instance – to the audience in a few swift strokes.  Personally, I think the best way to do this is to create a little mystery.

You know the old saying, “show, don’t tell?”  For backstory, I say, don’t tell AND don’t show.  I never ever need to see the flashback of the trauma that changed our hero.  Yawn.  What I need instead are the consequences of the trauma.  Think of Indiana Jones, who barely blinks while facing certain death eight ways from Sunday in the opening minutes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” absolutely freaking out because there’s a snake in the plane with him. 

We don’t know for two more movies why he hates snakes – we don’t need to know.  We can tell a lot about him just from his reaction.  It humanizes him, it’s funny, and it pays off later in “Raiders.”  Talk about bang for the buck.

Plus it’s more fun for the audience to watch something and not quite know why it’s happening.  Imagine a 1950s setting, a gaggle of well-dressed women lunching at a country club.  All of a sudden a new woman enters.  On the outside, she looks just like the women already there.  But as soon as people notice her, they stop talking.  The chatter has grown completely silent around her as she moves through the room.  The Maitre D’ walks her to her seat, by the window, where she sits at a table for two.  Alone.  How she handles the moment – how the other women (individually perhaps, or united as one) handle her being there – that creates tension and drama and it’s all built on the mystery of what’s going on?  What has made this woman an outcast?  Eventually you’ll have to tell, but giving us the consequences of her backstory before the story itself creates an oasis of mystery that is completely engaging.

Notice that neither of these is a mystery story per se.  Building mystery as a writing technique is effective and fun for screenwriters and novelists alike.  What about you?  Have you built mini-mysteries into either your novel or your screenplay?  Let me know how it worked for you.

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